How raising a puppy changed my life

This week my husband and I are celebrating the one-year anniversary of the day we got our beloved pug, Gus. That day, January 4, 2015, will be forever etched in my memory as the day I learned what it felt like to fall in love at first sight.

That’s me, meeting Gus for the first time. He was so tiny!
One year ago my husband and I were sitting in our car in a gas station parking lot in Merrillville, Ind., feeling a bit uncomfortable and anxious as we waited to meet our breeder. The brutal January wind whipped at our windows as I shifted in my seat. “What kind of car did she say she had again?” I asked him for what was surely the ten millionth time. As he answered, the very van we’d been searching for finally pulled into the parking lot and we looked at each other with wide-eyed excitement.

Then there I was, standing alongside our breeder’s gold minivan with a powder blue fleece blanket in my arms when all of the sudden a tiny, fluffy, fawn-colored pug puppy was thrust into my arms, a life that would change my life—our lives—completely. He was eight weeks old.

Look, I know everyone says, “A baby changes everything,” and as we are also expecting a baby, I know that is so true and I will probably have much more to say about that in the weeks ahead—I can’t wait, honestly, to know more about that. But I also believe the same could be said about getting a pet, especially your first dog who also happens to a puppy and is completely new to the world and needs constant attention, love and training (especially of the potty variety). Extra bonus points if you decide to get a puppy in the middle of a Chicago winter. Oh, memories!

OK, confession time: I grew up with a cat.

Phew! Glad that’s out of the way.

When I was younger I did not get dogs, nor did I want anything to do with them. (I also did not get cats, as the cat I grew up with only had eyes for my mother.) In my mid-twenties, something changed and I became quite enamored with the idea of getting a dog. My husband and I dreamed of getting a city dog that wouldn’t mind our tiny apartment; other requirements included being good around kids, laid back, fun-loving and, of course, super adorable. We developed a minor obsession with #pugsofinstagram, and after researching the breed further, we decided this was the dog for us.

Our journey to get Gus, which I playfully dubbed #pugwatch2015 (not a real hashtag), involved multiple visits to the allergist as well as multiple failed attempts to adopt a pug in need. I was overjoyed when we discovered a reputable, loving breeder through a friend at the gym, and even happier when we learned we’d been approved to adopt one of her puppies.

That January day we took Gus home was exhilarating and joyous and terrifying all at once. It was a day we had prepared for, reading Pugs for Dummies, Click for Joy and Don’t Shoot the Dog (Err… I only half-read that first book but my husband read all three),  assembling the crate and buying all the things–food and puppy shampoo and toys and a nail trimmer we’d never end up using. We’d even readied ourselves by rearranging our lives for Gus, with my husband taking some time off from his busy travel schedule for a short puppy paternity leave. (This month, as we finish getting ready for baby, I’m feeling an odd sense of déjà vu.)

Of course nothing could prepare us for how much love and frustration (and heartache!) puppy brought into our lives.

So what, specifically, changed?

My home life

When I think back to life before Gus, I have a hard time remembering my old routines and habits. While I did workout most mornings before work, I didn’t have much of a post-work routine. What I did in the evenings varied, whether it was working late or meeting up with friends or heading to book club or catching an evening yoga class. An extrovert at heart, I did whatever I could to avoid spending time on my own when my husband was traveling, which was most weeks.

Enter Gus. Mornings with puppy always included a bathroom break (or two) outside  and a meal, and it was the same in the evenings, punctuated by plenty of playtime. Luckily there were two of us at home to manage our puppy’s routine, which helped a lot. Although I continued to keep up with my regular commitments, the number of spontaneous outings in my life tapered off significantly.

I didn’t mind, actually, because I was in love with our new little puppy, and our new life together. Spending time with my two boys brought me so much joy–it was often the highlight of my day. Rather than scroll through my phone, habitually checking the news or my newsfeed, I poured my time, energy and attention into bonding with Gus. My puppy gave me a new appreciation for what it means to be present in the moment, something I craved for my life but really needed to work on. I knew I had issues with being present, I knew I was a little addicted to my phone.

Gus taught me to be present by teaching me to play again. His energy and enthusiasm was and continues to be boundless.

What is it about growing up that sucks away our desire to just play for the sake of playing? What happens to us along our journeys that downplays the important of play for humans? It’s as though we reach a certain age and at that age we are taught to be embarrassed by play, by indulging in silliness. 

Dogs seem to have it all figured out. They know play is essential to life and will go to great lengths to engage their owners to do so (at least ours does!). Gus certainly knows he needs play to survive and thrive–he’s actually a play bully, often pushing his toys into us or barking when he knows he needs a good session.

With Gus, home life is anything but lonely. When I am home with Gus I get to practice being present, I get to rediscover the joy of play.

My relationship

My husband didn’t spend much time at home before we had our puppy. The nature of his work is such that he could be asked to take a regional trip within a day’s notice, and he’d often be gone for the majority of the month. 

This was hard on me, as my love language is quality time. Even though we kept in touch while he was away, there have been times when I didn’t get enough quality time with him to fill my tank. Raising a puppy changed all that.

My husband stopped traveling for a couple months and became the primary puppy parent. (This was super helpful speeding up the potty training process and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it.) To my delight, he was usually home to greet me in the morning and greet me in the evening when I came home. So was Gus. For the first couple days, it seemed surreal, too good to be true. As I became accustomed to our togetherness the heartache I’d felt for so long when my husband was gone began to heal.

In those early days, I once came home to discover my husband had put together a spreadsheet of puppy’s potty schedule, documenting Gus’s day, hour by hour.

Leave it to an engineer on vacation to do something like this.

It sounds absurd, but it was actually super helpful. I loved it and loved the ways we were working together to raise Gus, sharing responsibilities and troubleshooting any problems that arose.

I remember the first time we gave Gus a bath. We kept checking Pugs for Dummies to see if we were “following all the steps correctly” while Gus looked on and waited for us humans to figure out what we were doing. It was a little clumsy but we got through it, congratulating ourselves as we patted him dry with a towel.

I remember the day Gus graduated from puppy school. We were both so proud of Gus, and the hours we’d spent training him to sit, lay down, walk away, and come when he’s called, really seemed to have paid off.

Raising Gus brought us even closer together than we already were. Not only did that special period in our life when we first got Gus give us hours of time together, it also forced us to communicate about milestones the puppy reached on a regular basis. In the process, we divvied up domestic dog duties and even developed our own silly nicknames and language for talking about the dog and it just worked.

My understanding of unconditional love

The third and final way raising a puppy shaped my life was the way it taught me about unconditional love.

In Sunday School we learned Jesus loves you no matter what and that is unconditional love, but I still grew up a people pleaser at heart and never fully digested the message. What I know now: Real love isn’t something you need to earn. And Gus helped with that. 

Through a leadership course and therapy that winter, I was just starting to notice how I acted to seek approval from others. Nowhere was this more clear than at work, which happened to be going pretty terribly when we got Gus.

I often would come home troubled by ______(fill in the blank with a ridiculous story here)_____, and troubled by Chicago traffic. I was under a lot of stress.

But nothing quite compares to coming home and being greeted by a dog who is just so excited to see you he can’t stop wiggling, wagging his tail or licking you. Gus was truly a therapy dog for me then and continues to be one for me now. (Oh, and those daily struggles? They’ve dissipated.)

If there’s ever a time when I’m feeling down, however, it’s as if Gus has a sixth sense and will stop whatever he’s doing to show me some love. 

Because of Gus I know I don’t have to earn love. I’m still working through patterns of people-pleasing that don’t serve me. But Gus, who loves me because I am me not because of anything I’ve done, has helped me see the transformative power of unconditional love. It is good and pure and true–a gift to be treasured.

Conclusion: Puppies – not for everyone.

I could tell you a plethora of other ways Gus has changed my life–our lives–for the better. We get outside more; he helped us meet new neighbors; he helped me not take life for granted.

Look, puppies aren’t for everyone, but if you’re considering adopting, know you are about to be gifted with a huge privilege and undertaking that cannot to be taken lightly. It is time-consuming and life-altering. Yet everything you invest in your dog, you will get back x1000.

I am a better person because of it. I feel so lucky to have the privilege to care for a dog. 

How about you? Do you have a special pet you’ll never forget, one that changed your life for the better? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. 





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